“Hellboy” is an overly violent, grotesque slog through cinematic hell

While the original Hellboy movies are not my favorite in the superhero genre, they have an undeniable visual majesty that utilizes practical effects and makeup to bring to life a supernatural world that’s mystifying, terrifying, and just plain cool. In an attempt to do something different with the new take on the big red character, this new Hellboy movie decides to throw all of what made the original movies special into a big red dumpster, and instead of bringing a fantastical world to life with some soul it decides to be the cinematic equivalent of bumper stickers that feature Calvin from “Calvin and Hobbs” taking a whizz on the “Peace” symbol. It tries so hard to be gnarly, badass, metal, freaky, bloody and everything else that the filmmakers thought demanded an R-rating, that it fails to have heart, charm, genuine horror movie vibes, character development, a clear story or anything that would resemble, at its core, a good movie.

The only convenient thing about this new take on the comic book character is that it doesn’t waste time showing you its true colors. The opening finds us in the medieval times (filmed in black and white to let you know we’re indeed in the past) with King Arthur hunting down an evil sorceress (Milla Jovovich) who wants to let ugly little monsters roam free and out of the shadows. The scene uses instances of ramped up footage to hint this is some freaky, twisted stuff happening, uses pools of CGI blood to make it bloodier than it has to be, and features a voiceover from present-day Ian McShane’s Professor Broom, who uses scholarly words like “Fuck” and phrases like “Pissed off” to describe the scenario. In short, the movie wastes no time showing how ugly, crass, clunky and generally stupid the rest of it will be.

Unfortunately, the greatest victim of this lack of imagination and reliance on cheap blood, profanity and everything else is Hellboy himself, played by David Harbour. The character is a fascinating one, a demon raised from hell but lives in our normal world fighting other paranormal forces. There’s a tragedy and soul to him in the past movies that are buried here under thick layers of makeup that restrict Harbour’s facial emotions, and a script that forces him to trudge from moment to moment, responding to every piece of information and new environment with a cheap joke. Expect him to use the very best from the Dad Joke Compendium like, “And I thought I smelled bad” after walking into a fish n’ chips shop. Harbour does what he can with the part, trying to give him some energy and elevate the material, but thanks to the look, writing and lack of the story knowing where to take him, he comes off more like a drunk biker working as a bodyguard at the biker bar where he sleeps.

The aimless story is all about taking Hellboy from one place to another for people and creatures to tell him he will bring about the apocalypse, but exploring why, how that affects him, or what else is going on besides this ominous detail is off the table. Instead, we get moronic set piece after set piece, which often find Hellboy being beaten up and thrown around as if he was very bad at his job. These moments are often grotesque and violent without being scary, funny or even cool – things the also R-rated Deadpool movies have mastered thanks to their gleefully profane and irreverent approach. There’s a sequence where Hellboy has to fight off three massive giants, and although he just got attacked and nearly killed by a group of pompous Englishmen almost all too easily, he uses immense strength and speed to take the big creatures down. A mess of CGI carnage and an excessive amount of CGI blood later – all set to some fast-paced rock n’ roll music – I almost felt sorry for this movie thinking it’s so much cooler than it actually is.

Hellboy and Baba Yaga in one of the movie’s only watchable scenes.

Alongside Hellboy are several characters who all no doubt have some rich histories in the comics, but who here all have the same aggressive, egotistical, and crass personalities. There’s Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) and Broom – all of whom seem to be trying to one-up each other to see who can be the most unlikeable. They all have little purpose other than to be bodies in the room, and yet the movie’s final moments rely on us caring about them, anxious to see them on a team for the sequels.

To be positive for a moment, there are one or two somewhat bright spots. The makeup and practical design work for the character Baba Yaga (Emma Tate), a demonic creature who Hellboy banished years before, is quite terrific. Her appearance is unsettling in a fascinating way and gives the movie that horror element it so desperately craves, and she writhes and twists her body around the walking house she lives in. It’s the kind of gross that makes for a better movie, the kind that makes you repulsed but also unable to look away. Then there’s the random, albeit still cool moment where Lobster Johnson (Thomas Hayden Church) comes in and stylistically kills some Nazis, all before branding their heads with a lobster claw symbol. It’s this artistic grossness and slick action I wish the movie had more of, all before it gets back to a CGI pig-creature who behaves like a drunken soccer hooligan and everything comes crashing down again.

There’s a lot to hate about the new Hellboy, but none more than the squandered potential. The movie was made thinking an R-rating would allow them to do more with the material, and while that could’ve been true, director Neil Marshall and writer Andrew Crosby waste all opportunities to embrace the gothic horror elements seen in the comics on appalling instances of random violence and throwing words like “Fuck” into jokes and sentences as if that’s what will make them funny or give characters personality. It’s what you get when you allow someone who probably uses the word “badass” too much to make a movie that goes balls-out in all the wrong ways.

Grade: D

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